If there’s one workplace that could use an employee assistance program, it’d be Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on Mad Men. The workers in the fictional advertising agency openly drink like fish on and off the job in episode after episode and work in an office environment that would make modern-day HR professionals cringe.
But while Don Draper might laugh at the idea of calling an EAP for help with his drinking, millions of American workers have utilized EAPs since employers began offering them to their employees as benefits. In fact, EAPs began life as “Occupational Alcohol Programs” and were focused on helping employees who were experiencing problems with alcohol.
[See "Top 5 reasons to use an EAP"]
“There was a tremendous surge in hiring after World War II and American companies were making up for lost time and people were buying stuff,” explains Bill Bowler, senior vice president of client services and ESI Employee Assistance Group in Wellsville, N.Y. “But people noticed that they had good competent people but they had an alcohol issue. And they soon learned it’s expensive to terminate and then have to rehire and retrain without having a mechanism to help them. Labor unions had a hand in this as well.”
Many of today’s workers probably think of the EAP as the place where people go to complain about their boss or co-workers, or as a place to talk with someone about their depression and stress. The truth is, EAPS—and their missions and their services—have changed dramatically over the past 20 years, and brokers should be prepared to discuss their benefits with potential clients.
While EAPs nowadays provide many different services, the core still centers on providing employee counseling—either through a referral network or in-house staff—with mental health issues, and helping the workforce deal with critical incidents in and out of the workplace.
“The two most common workplace issues are ‘I hate my boss’ or ‘I hate my job,’” says Marina London, spokesperson for the Employee Assistance Program Association. “That’s most common. The third would be, ‘I hate my co-workers.’ People might say they’re being overworked, but people will tolerate a lot and people will do just about anything. But if there’s stress with co-workers or conflict with co-workers and the boss, people tolerate that to a point and then they don’t tolerate it anymore.”
EAPs also routinely respond to critical incidents in the workplace, often times sending out counselors to work with employees on-site within hours of the incident. There have been many examples of critical incidents in the past. Most workers of a certain age remember the “going postal” days. But there are a host of other incidents that have dramatic emotional and physical impact on a group of workers.
“The most common one is employee death,” says Jay Sandys, director of clinical services at Corporate Counseling Associates in New York. “The second most common would be some sort of major event like a natural disaster or shooting, something along those lines … Workplace violence comes up, either domestic violence or co-workers fighting.”
A growing need
The reason EAPs have expanded their services over the past few decades is a direct response to the changing demands of the workplace. Americans are working longer and harder than ever before thanks to the economic downtown of 2008. The stagnant economy in subsequent years also has put pressure on workers from outside the office as they deal with foreclosures, bankruptcies, a spouse’s job loss or taking care of their parents.
The benefit of an EAP, for employers, is to keep their employees productive as they face those personal and professional challenges.
Studies have shown EAPs help decrease absenteeism, worker’s compensation claims, labor disputes and on-the-job accidents as well as decrease costs associated with substance abuse and mental health issues. They may even help with employee retention. EAPs have been gaining more widespread adoption by employers. The EAPA says that in 2008—the most current numbers available—65 percent of employers offered EAPs to employees, up from 56 percent in 1998.
At the same time, EAP professionals are working to change the perception of EAPs and the services they provide. Job No. 1 is making sure people understand the full menu of services offered to them under the benefit.
“I had a guy say to me the other day at a health fair, ‘Whoa, I hope I never have to call this number,’” Bowler says. “And I played along and said, ‘Why wouldn’t you call us?’ And he said, ‘I don’t do drugs or alcohol and stuff like that.’ So I explained to him what else we do. He was looking to do a will and I told him you can do that on our website.”
Bowler’s anecdote is indicative of how some workers aren’t fully aware of their EAP’s services. Here are a few more services from EAPs have grown to include over the years:
• Management consultation. EAPS are the place to go when a manager needs advice on how to deal with an issue among employees. Managers often deal with issues that can range from unproductivity to tardiness to bad hygiene. EAPS either provide guidance for a manager to address these issues or take on the job themselves. It’s good service for managers, but no knowing how to handle some situations leads to their own stress level.
• Legal services. Some EAPs are providing simple legal benefits to employees. Though not as robust as slate of offerings as a group legal plan, EAPs often help with simple legal procedures such as wills or traffic tickets.
• Financial advice. Since the economic downturn, many employees have turned to EAPs for financial advice. Industry sources say debt counseling is one on the major topics employees are searching for information on—especially among young workers. Workers also are facing housing pressures, including foreclosures, or trying to figure out how to overcome a spouse losing a job and its associated income.
• Work-life services. Some EAPs provide concierge service, which means doing simple tasks for workers such as picking up dry cleaning. Other services in this category can include pet bereavement and travel services. Many EAPs are presently helping employees not only with childcare, but providing guidance with eldercare issues as the parents of employees are living longer or outliving their retirement plans and are taking up residence with their children.
• Wellness. EAP providers are fielding more requests for education and training on a variety of health issues, including stress management, smoking cessation and nutrition. Some employers set up gyms or exercise rooms for their employees, and EAPs can recommend trainers or nutritionists to visit the workplace.
“When you step back and look at the whole picture, what we’re trying to do here is provide the employee and his or her family with a solution center,” Bowler says. “Most of these employers don’t want to deal with employees lining up at the HR office with problems and challenges. They’d rather outsource this to a group who does this professionally.”
Along with the expansion of services offered, it should come as no surprise that employees are utilizing EAPs more as well. There are a number of reasons for this, but London points to Sept. 11 as a major reason why. “When 9/11 happened, it became OK for people to get counseling because so many were traumatized,” London says.
There’s also the wrong perception that management tracks know which employees use EAPs, and makes personnel decisions based on what the employees tell counselors. That’s false. EAPs are covered under HIPAA, so the sessions are kept private, so employees can feel free to use the benefit without fear.
Sandys, who studied changes in EAPS since 1993 as part of his dissertation at New York University, says the EAP industry itself has gone through lots of change since 1993. Some EAPs have been purchased by managed behavioral health providers. One of the larger and more respected EAPs, Harris Rothenberg International, was recently purchased by Humana. As large managed behavioral health plans have merged or acquired EAPs, Sandys says, prices for EAPs have decreased.
Brokers should take time to learn an EAP’s services and match them to their client’s needs in order to be successful when it comes to signing up new clients.
“It’s about understanding what the needs of the client organization are,” says Mitchell Best, CEO of Physician Wellness Services. “It’s very granular. It’s about aligning with a specific client and knowing what their priorities and their challenges are with their employees.”
Nathan is a Denver-area writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.